Much current debate focuses on whether other sources of stem cells – blood from the umbilical cord removed at birth, for example – might be as useful without the need to destroy embryos, but the scientific consensus so far is that embryos remain the best research choice. Typically, the embryos used are those remaining at the conclusion of fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded or kept in frozen storage; a ban on the use of Federal funds to create new stem cells using these embryos currently is in effect, and various pieces of legislation pending in Congress would either extend this ban or relax it.
A survey of 2,212 Americans conducted September 9-19, reveals a public opinion landscape that bears little resemblance to the polarized, deep moral divide expressed on the floor of the Congress and in the op-ed pages of American newspapers.
The survey found wide support for embryonic stem cell (ESC) research that cut across political, religious and socio-economic lines, with two-thirds of respondents either approving or strongly approving of human embryonic stem cell research. Even Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians – long considered to be the most hard-line opponents of embryonic stem cell studies -- split evenly on approval for embryonic stem cell research.
Respondents were given a choice of four ESC research policy options: banning all embryonic stem cell research, retaining the current Bush administration policy, relaxing restrictions along the lines of some Congressional proposals that would allow federal funding of research using embryonic stem cell lines created using private funds, and unqualified Federal support for embryonic stem cell creation and research.
Twenty-two percent of respondents expressed support for the current Bush administration policy; fewer still (16 percent), would ban embryonic stem cell research altogether. A majority favored relaxing embryonic stem cell restrictions, including 40 percent who would support federal funding for both the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines and further research using them.
The survey also explored how potential future changes in the scientific landscape might affect public opinion. Respondents were asked to imagine two scenarios – the development of a technique to isolate ESCs without destroying embryos, or a major advance in treating disease based on embryonic stem cell technologies. About 25 percent of respondents who initially favored the current policy or a complete ban of ESC research indicated that if the treatment scenario were to materialize, they would support a public policy for ESC research that is more supportive than their initial policy position. Similarly, if the alternative scenario were to materialize, 16 percent of respondents who currently endorse a public policy towards ESC research that is more permissive than the current public policy would then support ESC research only if embryos were not destroyed.
The survey looked beyond overall attitudes toward ESC research to explore the competing values that underlie them. Survey respondents were asked a series of questions designed to ascertain the value placed on progress in ESC research and protecting early human embryos. The survey revealed a subtle topography of the public's attitudes with only a small fraction (6 percent at each pole) of the public occupying the extreme positions that so frequently characterize the public and policy debate. Fully half expressed agreement both with statements that placed high priority on protecting human embryos and with statements that placed high priority on searching for medical cures through ESC research. When asked in a single item which was more important, 60 percent selected ESC research and 37 percent selected not destroying embryos.
While the moral status of human embryos has been the centerpiece of the political debate about ESC research, often articulated as an all-or-nothing proposition that is fully predictive of all of an individual's other views on embryonic stem cell research, the public's views about the moral status of embryos and the relationship of those views to ESC research policy preferences has not been fully explored. The survey showed that nearly the same number of Americans believe that an embryo in a Petri dish has no or low moral status (30 percent) or maximum moral status (28 percent). The remainder (42 percent) accord embryos some intermediate moral status.
A third of those who believe an embryo in a Petri dish has maximum moral status nonetheless approve of ESC research. Similarly, a third support ESC research policies more permissive than the current policy and which involve funding for research using new ESCs.
In a parallel fashion, 17 percent of those who accord an embryo in a Petri dish no or low moral status nevertheless disapprove of ESC research and support the current ESC policy or an all-out ban (22 percent). Thus, even for a sizeable number of respondents who fall at the polar ends of the moral status continuum, the commonly held expectation that they will support the corresponding policy extreme does not hold true.